Finish the Damn Book, Sheila! (Day 1)

This is always the hardest part: coming back to the thing after a too-long hiatus. Whatever finely honed, keen observations I might have had about the book last summer (because yes, it’s been that long), have long since become muddy and amorphous. I am back to having only the most general sense of what the hell I’m trying to do. I mean this about structure–that’s been the hardest part for me from the beginning–that question of narrative arc versus mosaic. But today, I realized I have some other big things to resolve this summer too, and they are questions I thought I had already answered.

I went to Wegmans today with hard copies of every single word I’ve written that could possibly go toward this memoir. I knew that the only way to approach would be to reacquaint myself with the story word by word. I also knew that doing so would bring forward places I need to develop and, more importantly (in terms of structure), redundancies. As a writer, I am completely besotted by purposeful, elegant repetition, and I did find some of that in the pages today. But, as I expected I would, I also found a bunch of clunky overlap that I need to smooth out. This makes perfect sense since I began writing without an eye toward continuity.  So that’s problem, or let’s call it project,  number one.

In reading through the pieces and sketching notes about major themes and motifs (I did not expect bicycles to come up as much as they did!), I realized I have another thing to deal with this summer, and it’s definitely the bigger nut. I need, as I tell my students, to remember that the subject of a memoir is the memoirist. Which is to say that when people ask, “What’s your book about?” and I answer, “It’s about food and my father,” I’m not being accurate.  Yes, the book is about my relationship to my father, his stubbornness, his daunting intellect, his love of food, and, of course, his death. But he is not the focus. He is not the subject; I am.

Or, I need to be.

Maybe I’ll take the advice I sometimes give my students as they struggle with focus (it’s hard!) and tape a thesis statement to my monitor to remind me of what I’m trying to say.

Anyway, it was a hugely productive session today, even though I didn’t write anything toward the narrative itself. I feel much clearer than I did even just yesterday. I feel like I can see maybe a little bit farther than my headlights in the dark. 

And, I’m excited, too: a friend who owns a swanky art and design store in town has invited me to do a reading there next week as part of their new “Chocolate Cake Reading Series.”  The timing could not be more perfect. It’s just what I need to shake off the last of the semester and walk fully back into this work. I’ll read either the piece about the trip I took with my dad to visit Pennsylvania colleges, or the one about our trip to Hawaii when I was 15 and how my sister and I forgot our suitcases and I had to wear my red polar bear sweatshirt in public. That one’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser.

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2 thoughts on “Finish the Damn Book, Sheila! (Day 1)

    • Alison Jaenicke says:

      Glad you’ve got it going, Sheila. When’s the reading? Is it private or public? Advertise!

      As for the injunction to make the memoir about the memoirist–it seems self-evident, but as I think on Ann Patchett’s memoir about her relationship with Lucy Grealy (Truth and Beauty), I see what my students found a little faulty about it. A number of them pointed out that while Patchett reveals a lot about Lucy and about their times together, she doesn’t reveal as much about herself.

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